Climate change: Is digital the silver-bullet we’re looking for to meet our climate commitments?

By Mike Hughes, SVP of End-to-End Digital Customer Relationship at Schneider Electric

Festival Net Zero 2021

Over the last 12 months, we have achieved some amazing things, in timeframes no one could have dreamt possible. Multiple vaccines have been successfully developed, trialled, approved and mass-produced in one year, not the decade it usually takes. Industry after industry has adapted to 100% remote ways of working in months instead of the five to seven years it might have taken ordinarily. Businesses have completely reconfigured and adapted supply chains to ensure that products from PPE to toilet roll to fresh food could be sourced, produced and shipped in the quantities required in spite of factory shutdowns and border closures.

Digital technology has been pivotal to enabling every one of these successes in the dramatically accelerated timeframe in which they were achieved.

As we turn our attention to arguably the biggest challenge we collectively face, global warming, I believe digital is the silver bullet we are looking for.

Why is digital the key to tackling climate change?

To avoid an environmental catastrophe, we need to reduce emissions by as much as we can (ultimately 100%) as fast as we can (within the next 30 years). Digital is a proven accelerator of change in every facet of society. The technologies already exist and can be deployed immediately. It can not only reduce emissions, but can also offer a return on investment that means it more than pays for itself over time.

Here are several ways in which digital technology can reduce emissions at scale.

  1. Visibility: digital tools help us see and measure what we can’t capture with a naked eye

Climate change is the energy problem: 80% of all carbon emissions are linked to energy. However, a quarter of all emissions are created by energy that is lost or wasted. Reducing (or eradicating) energy loss and waste can be done today and achieves significant reductions in emissions without requiring wholesale changes to our lifestyles.

Where does digital come into this?  It’s difficult to tackle a problem if you can’t see it. Digital technologies enable us to monitor the performance and energy efficiency of our homes, offices and industries appliance by appliance and room by room.

  1. Efficiency: what can be measured, can be improved and optimised

Once our homes, workplaces, cities and industries undergo a digital retrofit – which can be done up to 10 times faster and more efficiently than physical insulation  – the identified energy waste and CO2 emissions can be eliminated. Overall, a whopping two-thirds of efficiency potential is untapped with regards to energy savings: 82% in buildings, 58% in industry and 79% in

infrastructure.

Digital provides the tools to automatically switch devices, lights, heating on and off as needed. Identify equipment that might be burning more energy than expected and investigate why. And optimise and automate our increasingly complex environments. In short, it gives us the data and tools to tackle the efficiency challenge.

Not only that, but using digital software solutions energy efficiency can be prioritised and programmed in at the planning stage of a project.

Even such energy-intensive processes as oil and gas production can achieve significant reductions in emissions with better planning and the deployment of digital solutions.  A recent study we have undertaken with McDermott and io Consulting has found a staggering 76% reduction in operational emissions of oil and gas facilities could be achieved with a minimal total expenditure increase of 2%. This could be delivered through a mix of digital, renewable grid power, SF6-free switchgear and certain modifications that would allow the facilities to getting rid of the so-called fugitive emissions, all while encouraging remote operations and promoting staff safety.

3) Interoperability: designed to benefit people and the planet

If we look at building processes and operations across homes buildings and industry today – we’ll see that they are fragmented and disconnected due to regional standards and proprietary systems. Open-standard yet cybersecure software systems and tech partnerships enable us to surpass today’s disconnected analogue-based workflows to claim full sustainability benefits.

Interoperable solutions will help reduce error and create a system of complete visibility from design to operations level, especially where on or offsite collaboration is a given across a number of critical segments including the building stock, the grid, transportation and key infrastructure projects. Connecting all elements within buildings, which account for 40% of carbon emissions, would help solve one of the great challenges of our time – building efficiency.

4) Enablement: deploying and managing the transition to renewables

The move to renewable energy and an increasingly electric world requires a more sophisticated and complex bi-directional smart power grid. Existing power grids have been built to support the distribution of energy from a relatively small number of energy producers to our workplaces, homes, public spaces, transport networks and infrastructure.  And our energy consumption patterns have been highly predictable, down to energy surges during ad breaks on TV.

As renewables replace fossil fuels, the production of energy starts to change hands. In addition to the large energy producers, there are businesses and individuals generating their own energy and selling it back to the grid. Our usage patterns are changing with the move to electric vehicles, electric heat pumps and streaming services. And we are consuming more electricity than ever.

Digital technologies are essential to create the next generation smart grid and to support the integration and management of solar panels, EV charging and heating into our homes and workplaces.

5) Innovation: increased sustainable investment delivers impact at scale

Not so long ago, large scale sustainability projects attracted specialist investors. Today, ESG investing is going mainstream. Money invested in ESG funds more than doubled in a year, as funds captured $51.1 billion of net new money in 2020.

Whilst projects seeking to create new biofuels, battery technology or mass produce green hydrogen are costly, high-risk and will take years to show returns, digital environmental solutions are easier to understand, evaluate and monetise. They offer shorter investment cycles, faster ROI and provide more opportunities for investors to scale quickly.

Of course sustainable investing is not immune to “social” risk, but digital solutions offer versatility. Modern smart offices technologies help ensure appropriate capacity, occupancy and social distancing – all while effectively managing the building’s energy needs and air quality in the process. When sustainability tech innovations become capable of addressing public health, investors take notice, and innovation cycles have the funds to accelerate.

With the rapidly advancing digital technologies, we can accelerate progress to meeting global climate change commitments with tools at our disposal today. And there is no time to waste. Governments, businesses and societies have shown great agility to prioritise public health.

Now we need to apply the same urgency when it comes to the health of our planet.  Digital provides a step-change in how we approach, deliver and scale our sustainability efforts. A net zero carbon future is certainly green, but it must also be digital and electric.

This story was originally published by Forbes.

 

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